Friday, July 27, 2012

Samuel Fuller's 'Pulp Fiction' (1961)

The Great Recasting Blogathon is an event in which post-1965 films are re-cast with pre-1965 actors, hosted by In the Mood and Frankly, My Dear. For a complete listing of participating blogs, visit the links at both sites.

In the spring of 1960, Samuel Fuller was stuck. For a little over a year, he had been working on a screenplay about a middle-aged boxer who agrees to take a dive for a gangster for money, only to double-cross him. Fuller was interested in exploring the world of boxing, but he wasn't satisfied with what he had to that point, and for several months had put the unfinished screenplay on the shelf, returning instead to the script for what would eventually become Underworld USA

Then Fuller received an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival from his friend, writer Romain Gary. Fuller was reluctant to go at first; he was still bitter about the French reaction to his 1957 war film China Gate. However, Gary, the French Consul-General in Los Angeles at the time, claimed to be able to smooth things out with the right people if need be, and ultimately, Fuller agreed, choosing to keep a low profile while in Cannes.


Samuel Fuller
This was the year Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless debuted to a rapturous Cannes audience, and as Fuller watched it, he was amazed to see his influence in this young French director's work - for example, there was a clear visual homage to his Barbara Stanwyck Western Forty Guns. Fuller had heard inklings here and there about a recent resurgence in French cinema, but it wasn't until seeing Godard's film, with its use of hand-held cameras and of course, jump cuts, that he began to feel as if these techniques could be applied in his own work.


A meeting was arranged between the two filmmakers. Godard couldn't have been more excited to meet Fuller, one of his idols, and the two talked for hours. Eventually, Fuller mentioned his boxing screenplay and Godard offered a few suggestions, including the addition of a young female lead. Suddenly re-energized, Fuller brought in Gary to help him with the rewrite, spending an extra week in Cannes holed up in their hotel. Fuller returned to America while Gary remained in Europe.


Rod Steiger
Fuller envisioned Rod Steiger as Butch, his boxer character, ever since seeing him in the title role in Al Capone (1959), and approached him with the current draft of his screenplay. Steiger had been alternating between television and film for much of his career, and was eager for another showcase role on the big screen such as this. With both a leading man and a script - now retitled Pulp Fiction in an homage to his younger years as a pulp novelist - Fuller went to Columbia Pictures to set up a deal to produce and direct.


Fuller set up a screen test for Godard's Breathless star Jean Seberg with an eye towards getting her to play Mia, the moll character Fuller added after his initial conversations with the French filmmaker. Fuller had met her briefly at Cannes and was quite taken by her. Seberg was greatly trepidatious about returning to Hollywood, having struck out in her film debut, Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957) and not faring much better in her subsequent films, hence the move to France. Fuller informed her, however, that the part of Mia was written with her in mind. With Godard's encouragement, Seberg agreed to fly out to LA.

Gary, back in LA by now, also attended the screen test, which Seberg passed with flying colors. She even offered a couple of suggestions for the character which Fuller and Gary readily took to. Gary and Seberg began spending more time together during the production of Pulp, and a relationship formed between the two of them.

Jean Seberg
In Pulp, Mia is the kept girl of Marsellus Wallace, the small-time gangster who gets Butch to take a dive. She has a sub-plot all her own, in which she's watched over by a pair of Wallace's henchmen while Wallace is out of town, but gets excessively drunk at a nightclub and nearly dies. Fuller brought in journeyman actor John Dall, whom he admired from his turn in Gun Crazy, and Brock Peters, who had small but memorable parts in the black musicals Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, as the henchmen Vincent and Jules.


For the part of Wallace, Fuller had in mind someone tall and imposing. Gary happened to remember the Gregory Peck war film Pork Chop Hill (1959) and seeing the 6'4" Woody Strode in a small part. Fuller liked the suggestion and brought the actor into the cast as well.


Post-production took longer than usual for a Fuller film, mostly due to the editing process, and as a result, he was not able to bring it to Cannes like he had hoped. Godard flew in to look at a rough cut and make a few suggestions here and there. Eventually, Pulp was released in the fall of 1961 to middling reviews. As much as Fuller tried to bring the French New Wave sensibility to his film, the American audiences of the day were less than receptive. The French received it more warmly, though, especially Seberg's performance. It would take another six years before that style would be successfully wedded with American cinema, in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde

Jean-Luc Godard
Fuller's relationship with Godard and the French New Wave would continue, however. Years later he would make cameo appearances in Godard's Pierrot le Fou and Brigitte et Brigitte, directed by another Fuller acolyte, Luc Moullet. Further in life, Fuller would move to France. Gary and Seberg, meanwhile, would get married in 1962 and have a son. He took up directing and made a pair of movies with Seberg, but their relationship grew sour and they divorced in 1970.


Quentin Tarantino's remake in 1994, ironically, did make it to Cannes and won the Palme D'Or as a result. His version is particularly notable, not only for the increased level of violence, but for the addition of the non-linear storytelling format, which has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956). Indeed, it is more of a re-imagining than a straight remake (the henchmen Jules and Vincent are expanded upon, for instance), one which Fuller has said is truer to his original vision than his actual product turned out to be, hampered as he was by his attempts to make a French New Wave film.

14 comments:

  1. I never would have thought that any other director would have been able to pull Pulp Fiction off, but Samuel Fuller could have done it! You made great choices and I definitely think this could have worked. Nice post.

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  2. Thanks. The key for me, I think, was the connection to the FNW. Everything else fell into place after that.

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  3. This would be the hippest movie that ever was. You had me at Jean Seberg as Mia.

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    1. I learned a great deal about Seberg while making this, including her political beliefs and her tragic death - stuff I almost wanted to include, but it would've been too much.

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  4. Pulp Fiction would be great in the hands of Samuel Fuller. And Jean Seberg would be the main reason for me to watch ;)
    I'm in the blogathon with THe English Patient recast.
    Greetings,
    Le

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    1. Tarantino has said that Fuller is an influence of his, so Fuller seemed like the natural choice to direct this fantasy film.

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  5. Agreed that Jean Seberg is inspired! This is the 2nd blog to recast Pulp Fiction - both are so interesting! Loved your choices - it would be amazing and definitely on my watch list.

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  6. Jean Seberg would be a great Mia. Great post, Rich!

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  7. Something tells me I'm gonna have to look at more of Seberg's films...

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  8. As someone who also recast Pulp Fiction in this fun blogathon, I must say I really enjoyed your write-up. Sam Fuller is one of my favourite directors and I love love love Jean Seberg (did I mention how much I love Sweet Jean Seberg?) This is definitely a film I would love to see. And I especially like how you had QT remaking Fuller's film. Fuller is of course an influence on Tarantino (but then who isn't) and this really isn't that far off the realm of possibility. Great stuff and a great post. Fantastic.

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  9. Thanks a lot! Though I think there could be something to a 'Pulp Fiction' Busby Berkley-style musical too...

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  10. Really enjoyed your recasting of this; I could definitely see something like this working. And I love the choice of Jean Seberg. Great other choices, as well. Thank you for joining us!

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